- Written by Dan
Hostelling Cross-Country Canada!
By Hostelling International
Driving Across Canada
I would have to say that I am one of the lucky ones! I have had the opportunity to drive across Canada.
For any Canadian (or honorary Canadian like myself) this should be on your bucket list. For me, it’s only when I travel by land that I actually get to feel the country’s spirit, get to know its people and appreciate its beauty and diversity. You may think the cross-country trip is pretty easy, just jump on the Trans-Canada Highway and away you go.
But it’s not that simple. First, there is the length of time it takes, and then there are the options of driving round trip, hiring, or shipping your car. When I travelled from east to west I had a couple of months, so my trip was pretty leisurely, but I still missed out on lots of places. I had just arrived in Canada after living in New Zealand for a couple of years. I bought a car and some camping equipment in Halifax and drove back home to Vancouver Island.
Next you have to think about the cost. It is going to be pricey—but you know, this is on your bucket list, so it’s worth it! You can keep the costs down by camping and staying in hostels along the way. Cooking your own meals at a campsite or hostel helps; however, you must splash out every now and then on those provincial delicacies, like PEI lobster and Quebec poutine.
I would recommend doing the trip in the summer or early fall. Also make sure you give yourself a day or so every couple of weeks to just relax and do nothing. This helps with the travel fatigue! Here are some of the places I stopped along the way.
Halifax will probably be your start or end point. This city is rich in history, with its citadel slap-bang in the middle of town. The waterfront in the summer has plenty going on, and in the evenings you’ll often find live music being played at many of the pubs.
I loved the Alexander Keith Brewery. It was really interesting and you get to sample the brews. Another interesting place is Pier 21, where you can learn about all the immigrants that arrived in Canada between 1928 and 1971.
Where to stay: HI-Halifax Heritage House
Even if you are not doing a Trans-Canada trip, I recommend Nova Scotia as a stand alone vacation spot. The Tourism Board has mapped out touring routes, which makes exploring a whole lot easier.
The Lighthouse Route takes in Nova Scotia’s rugged coastline. Stop off at picturesque Peggy’s Cove with its lighthouse, fishing boats and lobster pots, then move on to Lunenburg, with its colourful buildings and character homes. If you have time, make a detour to Kejimkujik National Park; both the seaside and inland parks will not disappoint. The route continues on to Liverpool, Shelburne and Yarmouth before meeting up with the Evangeline Trail.
The Evangeline Trail runs through the Annapolis Valley region and the Fundy Shore. The region was home to some of the first European settlers in North America and is rich in history; you’ll see forts, farmland and fishing villages, all steeped in over 400 years of history.
The meandering Cabot Trail takes you along the northern coast and through the Cape Breton Highlands. This is a great place to spot moose!
Where to stay: HI-South Milford, HI-Cape Breton Island and HI-Cabot Trail
Prince Edward Island
I chose to take the ferry from Caribou, Nova Scotia, to Woodlands, PEI. This way I could do a kind of loop on PEI, and then drive over to the mainland on the Confederation Bridge.
The birthplace of Canada, Charlottetown is full of interesting sights. You should visit Founder’s Hall, Province House National Historic Site of Canada, and Beaconsfield Historic House. I suggest you explore Charlottetown by foot, for it is a compact city and there are many historic buildings and streets to wander.
Where to stay: HI-Charlottetown
One highlight of my visit was Greenwich, a 900-acre unique dune system that is home to a variety of bird life and plant species, as well as nationally important Aboriginal and Acadian archaeological sites.
Cavendish, home to the beloved children’s book character Anne of Green Gables, is another favourite spot; here you can visit Gables Heritage Place, Avonlea Village, and Montgomery’s Homestead. Make time to just relax on the island’s sandy beaches, and of course, you must try PEI spuds and lobster.
From PEI I took the bridge over to New Brunswick and straight to Hopewell Rocks. We stayed two nights here so we had a full day to see the famous high tides. I saw high tide first in the morning, and then went for a drive around the beautiful surrounding area while waiting for low tide. When I went back to see what the rocks looked like at low tide, you could really see the height and range of the tide.
I highly recommend driving the Fundy Trail, which runs from St. Martins to Saint John along a 16 kilometre road, hugging the cliff tops along this beautiful coastal wilderness area. There are some excellent walks and lookouts along the way, so be sure to schedule time to enjoy these.
Another spot in New Brunswick I really enjoyed was the Acadian Coast. It was fantastic to learn about the rich history and culture of this region. The boardwalk at La Dune de Bouctouche is well worth a visit. Le Pays de la Sagouine and Village Historique Acadien both offer you an insight into how Acadian life used to be.
Where to stay: HI-Campbellton
From New Brunswick I went straight to Quebec City. It’s North America’s only fortified urban centre.
A stroll along the cobbled city streets lets you soak up its history and European charm. While in Quebec City, splash out on some great Quebecois cuisine. I recommend Le Bonnet d’Ane. Its menu ranges from elaborate plates to gourmet burgers, and its famous curry poutine.
If you are able to drag yourself away from this charming city, take a day trip to Quebec’s tallest waterfall, Montmorency Falls. There is a suspension bridge right over the falls, so you get an excellent view, even if it is a bit scary!
Where to stay: HI-Quebec City
Next, it was on to Montreal. This city is all about la joie de vivre and Montrealers have a real laidback attitude, so when you are in the city ensure you take that frame of mind, too! Eat well, drink well and enjoy the music and arts scene. There are lots of outdoor gatherings in the city during the summer. A massive one is Piknic Electronik on Île Ste-Hélène, where people dance to electronic music every Sunday. If you are not in the city when these events are on, just grab yourself a picnic and relax at Parc La Fontaine.
I also recommend hiring a bicycle and taking a ride over to Parc Jean-Drapeau where you can enjoy the beach, outdoor pools, museums, an outdoor art gallery, acres of flower gardens, an amusement park and the cycling trails.
Here we are in the country’s capital, and of course, you have to visit the Parliament buildings, take a stroll along the Rideau Canal and a cruise along the Ottawa River. But did you know Ottawa is considered one of the world’s most haunted cities? With that in mind, I suggest you take a haunted city walking tour, where you can learn about all the ghosts and the dark side of the city. To top off your spooky stop in Ottawa, you must stay at HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel, where you can sleep in an actual cell!
Where to stay: HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel
Toronto Half of the population of Canada’s largest city was born abroad, and more than 140 languages are spoken there. It really is a multicultural city. It is also a city of neighbourhoods, and you should visit a few when you are there.
Kensington Market has a ‘hippie’ feel to it; small, colourful cottages house vintage, craft and second-hand shops, as well as independent coffee houses, restaurants and bars.
Toronto’s Chinatown is one of North America’s largest, and a stroll down Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West can make you think you have been transported to the heart of Shanghai. Take your pick from the hundreds of food establishments and enjoy some dim sum or noodle soup! Toronto Island is a 10-minute ferry ride, but a whole world away from the bustling streets of downtown. Rent a bike and hit the many trails across the island. You’ll find wooded areas, Centreville Amusement Park, quaint homes, boating areas and beaches.
Where to stay: HI-Toronto
Niagara Falls From Toronto I drove to Canada’s most iconic location, Niagara Falls. You have a few options of how to see them. The free, and most immediate way, is from the public walkway that lines the falls and Niagara River. For a price, you could take the Journey Behind the Falls, where you take an elevator down through bedrock and view the back of the cascading falls. It’s an impressive vantage point. The oldest tourist attraction is the Maid of the Mist, the boat tour that puts you in a blue poncho and takes you as close to the falls as you could ever hope to get.
Where to stay: HI-Niagara Falls
After Niagara Falls, it was great to get back on the open road and take a break from all the cities. There is a lot to see in Quebec and Ontario, but I only scratched the surface and stuck to the major attractions. I am going to have to take a trip back there someday!
The drive along the shores of Lake Superior took a while, which is not surprising, seeing as it is the largest of the Great Lakes.
Winnipeg was my next stop, after a brief encounter with Lake Winnipeg. There’s plenty to do in this city. The Fork National Historic Site is a historic meeting place and still thriving today. You’ll find lots going on, including a bustling market, many dining options, a river walk and entertainment, which changes throughout the year.
The Exchange District is worth a visit; it’s a colourful and cosmopolitan district, and also a National Historic Site which showcases North America’s most extensive collection of turn-of-the-century architecture.
Where to stay: HI-Winnipeg Downtowner
No offense to Saskatchewan, but I did not stop for long here due to my schedule. The landscape of Saskatchewan is so flat, and the fields and sky seemed to go on forever—it really is beautiful. It was amazing to see how different the landscape was here, compared to what I had seen on the east coast of Canada.
I stayed in the provincial capital, Regina, for one night. The city does offer some interesting sights and if you time it right, you could be there during one of the many festivals that run throughout the year.
Where to stay: HI-Regina
From Regina I drove to Alberta and the Dinosaur Provincial Park. This has to be one of my favourite places in Canada! I found the place absolutely amazing, and I loved the fact there were dinosaur bones under my feet wherever I walked throughout the park. The landscape in this area was very different and looked out of this world! From there we drove through Alberta’s Badlands to Calgary. Calgary Yee-haw! Calgary is the cowboy capital of Canada, and this modern city has plenty to keep you amused. Some of the best attractions are the Calgary Zoo, Fort Calgary, Glen Bow Museum and Canada Olympic Park. Areas of Calgary that are worth a visit are Chinatown, Eau Claire Market, Stephen Avenue, Mission and 17th Avenue. You could always plan your stop in Calgary to coincide with the Calgary Stampede, “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth!”
Where to stay: HI-Calgary City Centre
I decided to drive up to Edmonton before going to the Rockies. My main draw to Edmonton was the West Edmonton Mall. It was one of those things I wanted to tick off my list: “Yes, I have been to one of the largest malls in North America!” However, I was pleasantly surprised by Edmonton, I particularly liked the Old Strathcona area, with its trendy boutiques and cafes.
Where to stay: HI-Edmonton
From Edmonton it was a short hop to the Rockies. I think the image of the mountains rising up from the fields will stay in my mind forever!
Driving the Icefields Parkway is spectacular. I did it in a day, but ideally you should do it in a few, and stop for a night or two along the way to enjoy the numerous hikes. I did manage to fit in Jasper, Peyto Lake, Moraine Lake, the Athabasca Glacier, Lake Louise and Banff.
Where to stay: HI has numerous hostels dotted throughout the Rockies.
So, here I am entering the last province on my cross-country drive. From Banff I headed to Revelstoke, and then I continued along Highway 1 towards Vancouver. There are plenty of turn-offs and overnight options on this route. Shuswap Lake is an ideal summer spot where you can enjoy the lake and water sports. Next up is the Okanagan, where the towns of Kelowna and Penticton are a great base from which to explore. Tubing is a must in the summer here. I also recommend visiting the farmers markets in Penticton and the rest of the region, where you can pick up some delicious produce and cook up a great meal at the hostel or campsite.
Where to stay: HI-Penticton and HI-Shuswap Lake
Vancouver is a spectacular city. Not many cities can boast such a lovable and liveable location, with the mountains and the ocean right on your doorstep. The downtown core of Vancouver has plenty of shopping, dining and entertainment. A must while in the city is renting a bike, and cycling around Stanley Park and the sea wall. I recommend taking the Seabus from Waterfront Station over to North Vancouver; the ride offers excellent views of the city, and again from Lonsdale Quay on the other side.
The place to be in the summer is Kitsilano (“Kits” as the locals call it); grab your towel and hang out at the beach and outdoor pool. I recommend the Boathouse Restaurant at Kits Beach if you are looking for a place to eat.
Where to stay: HI has two hostels in the downtown core: HI-Vancouver Central and HI-Vancouver Downtown; and one in Kitsilano, HI-Vancouver Jericho Beach
My road trip did not end in Vancouver; I had to make it home to Victoria. B.C.’s capital is full of old world charm with its historic buildings. It’s also home to the famous Butchart Gardens and boasts Canada’s mildest climate. But there’s more to Victoria than this. Head to the oceanside village of Oak Bay, which is said to be more English than England! Along Oak Bay avenue you’ll find coffee shops, antique shops, restaurants and one of my favourite pubs, The Penny Farthing. The walkway along Dallas Road has an excellent view of the coast and Olympic Mountains. Fisherman’s Wharf is very quaint and has the best fish and chips! Chinatown is another must-see; it’s also the oldest one in Canada and so a National Historic Site.
Where to stay: HI-Victoria
Here ends my cross-country road trip—and I would say it is one of the highlights of my travelling life! I am drawn to the diversity of any country, and Canada does not disappoint. We all know the Prairies are totally different from the Rockies, and the East Coast is different from the Pacific West. However, it is only when you actually experience it, walk the country’s shores on both coasts, see the pancake-flat fields roll into the horizon and then come face to face with the towering Rockies that you really appreciate how diverse and amazing Canada is. Another thing that struck me about Canada is the country’s rich history. I can assure you, if you do ever take this trip, you will definitely discover new places, stories, and of course, people! The problem I have now, after doing it once, is that I want to do it all again in reverse, and spend more time in the places I visited.